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The Lady is a Humble Thing: Elise Cowen

By Karen Baddeley

The Lady is a humble thing

Made of death and water

The fashion is to dress it plain

And use the mind for border

I remember watching the man I was supposed to marry through my peephole. He had just told me that he was going to marry someone else: a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers, a nice Irish Catholic girl. I am not a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers. He left and trotted down the hall and the stairs. I wondered how someone could just switch it off so easily, the love switch. It was supposed to be harder for him to let go. So when I found Elise Cowen, I understood.

She was born and raised in Washington Heights on Bennett Avenue, three blocks away from where I live now. She has often been described as coming from a wealthy family but this isn’t true. They were a typical middle-class, Jewish family; common in that part of Washington Heights. “They had a ‘nice’ apartment on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights, on the seventh floor of a blonde brick house built just before the war,” (Johnson 54). The early part of her life was nothing spectacular, but there was tension in her home. Her father was a failed entertainer and now sold sheet music, her mother was a homemaker. “Elise was the focus point of their high-strung emotions, even of their battles with each other. She was the sore spot, the darkness in the household, depriving her parents of the middle-aged gaiety that should have been theirs,” (Johnson 54). She was their only child, an added pressure.

Her name really was “Elise Nada Cowen.” When I first read that, I thought this was some nom de plume she took on. But no, it really was Nada. “Literally it means Nothing – Nothing and Nothingness,” (54) Elise told her friend Joyce Johnson with pride. Johnson was obsessed by this odd choice for a middle name. “Humility – that was the Nada side of her,” (56) she said. Her father was likely the parent who chose this name for her. Even her first name conjured up odd imagery. “[Lucien Carr] took a fancy to Elise – her name seemed to give him endless amusement. Ellipse, he called her. Or Eclipse. ‘Well now, Eclipse, what’ll you have?’ he’d shout across the room, and his wife Cessa would redden and say ‘Oh Lucien!’” (Johnson 125). An eclipse: when one object moves into the shadow of another.

Elise was popular enough, had friends, and did well in school. When she was about 13 or 14 she was baking brownies for her friends. She opened the oven to check on them and the oven exploded in her face “singeing off quite a lot of her hair as well as her eyebrows. After this she always thought of herself as ugly,” (Johnson 54). She wasn’t the only one. After this accident her father quit calling her beautiful as well. On top of all this she was plagued by all the usual joys of adolescence: acne, breasts that were too large, and general awkwardness.

Her grades were good enough to get into Barnard, and that’s where her life changed. Writer Joyce Johnson, who remained Cowen’s best friend throughout her entire life, was initially opposed to getting to know Elise. “During that first weekend at Barnard I met a girl whom my instincts told me to avoid… She was standing in the corner of the Barnard gym, scowling downward as she was concentrated on something she was doing with her hands,” (Johnson 51-52). She was the girl in the corner. Johnson was majoring in music at the time in need of sheet music. Elise told her to quit buying it, that she could get it for her for free from her father. “There was an hour before our next classes, which we ended up cutting, unwilling to tear ourselves away from our conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy. Most of our conversations were like that during the ten years we knew each other, so that even now it’s sometimes a shock to remember that Elise is dead and I can’t pick up the phone and speak to her,” (Johnson 53).

Elise was an English major, focused on the works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound whom she frequently quoted in conversation. “’Pull down thy vanity, I say, pull down…” It was she who first read me that line of Pound’s, triumphantly, one afternoon in the Barnard library,” (Johnson 56). But she struggled in school, uninterested in the coursework though she was interested in the subject matter. “She couldn’t reconcile her intellectual passions with the need to get by fulfilling requirements,” (Johnson 57). I understood. I had to drop out of my first attempt at college (a different women’s college in the Midwest) after I stopped going to classes. Cowen moved out and dropped out of Barnard, taking a room in a boarding house nearby.

Joyce Johnson was in awe of her friend’s bold decision to move out completely on her own. Women back then lived with their parents, husbands, or in schools, they never moved out on their own. Elise needed to be independent, something that Johnson related to and admired. “I envied the courage it represented,” (Johnson 63). Though Elise put on a brave front, she was also extremely depressed. While at the boarding house, she made her first attempt at suicide. “She said she’d slipped in someone’s bathroom and cut herself on some broken glass – it was really all quite stupid. They’d had to take stitches,” (Johnson 65). She was lonely and isolated since she left Barnard. Johnson wrote “recently Elise and I had discussed suicide and had agreed that there might be points in your life when it could present itself as one of the honorable alternatives,” (Johnson 66).

Around this time, she began dating her former philosophy professor Donald Cook. He dated many students from Barnard and Elise was nothing special to him. The difference between Elise and the other girls was that she acted as his assistant as well as his lover. She cared for his toddler son, cooked, and cleaned his apartment. She told Johnson (who dated Cook herself later on) that she didn’t mind doing these chores for him when he went out with other women. She felt that it was her duty to support Cook and make it easier for him to do his work.

It’s hard to say what Elise Cowen’s poems are “about” (if anything) because when they were discovered, they were bits and pieces and undated. But it doesn’t matter since history often repeated itself with Elise, particularly when it came to her romantic relationships. Just the title in her poem “Teacher – your body my Kabbalah” speaks volumes. Spirituality and religion are frequent ideas that Elise plays with in her poetry. “She embraces images of sacred power so that they may be reconceived, revising the language of prayer in favor of language that is both materialist and incantatory,” (Trigilio 128). Unsurprisingly, it was also where she chose to where she explored her relationships in ways that she did not express to her friends. She writes “Donald’s first bed wherein this fantasy/shame changing him to you…/Shame making body thought/a game.” She was self-aware despite her friends’ perceptions. She did feel pain in her relationship in ways that others did not expect of her. She continues:

Fear making guilt making shame

making fantasy & logic & game &

elegance of covering splendor

emptying memory of event

She was well aware, likely from her parents and analysts, on the complications of being a single, sexually active woman in the early sixties. She wasn’t a “nice” girl once she’d moved out and once she’d had sex with Cook, and in some way, this troubled her. She was also concerned and confused by the way Cook himself treated the relationship.

While at Barnard, things began to change for Elise, but there are no words to describe what happened when she met and dated Allen Ginsberg. On their first date she went downtown to meet him. “She takes the subway to the Village where he’s waiting, and they walk through those blocks that were the geography of my adolescent yearnings to the San Remo Bar, where an amazing number of people seem to know him,” (Johnson 73-74). Elise was in love from the first moment they met, she was in awe of him. Cowen was discouraged, however, as she observed the women at the San Remo. “The women here, Elise notices, are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely. But she herself is tormented by speechlessness. Why can’t she say more?” (Johnson 74). The other women were the chicks, they were hangers-on. Elise wanted more.

She was sure it was love, she felt an intense connection to Allen as if they were siblings – they did resemble each other physically. They make love that first night, “an act his analyst would have approved of and hers might have viewed as quite negative, (Johnson 76). She frequently referred to Allen as her intercessor. “In Elise’s life, Allen was an eternity,” (Johnson 78). Unfortunately for Elise, this was also the time when Allen started to explore his desires for men. She was the last woman he ever dated.

Allen started dating Peter Orlovsky, Elise started dating a woman referred to as “Sheila” (her real name has never been revealed in any piece about Elise). Elise’s reasons for taking a female lover were still connected to Allen. “In loving Sheila, Elise is loving Allen too, reaching him in some place in her mind, living his life – loving Sheila as Allen loves men,” (Johnson 92). Elise and Allen would always remain close, at least in her mind. “Until the time she died, her world was Allen,” (Skir 155).

Elise replicated her relationship with Donald Cook in her relationship with Allen (although her relationship with Allen was ultimately not a sexual one). Allen and Peter moved into Elise’s apartment in Yorkville. “In the apartment in Yorkville, Elise waited, ironing, making soup, taking messages, lying down a mattress to smoke a cigarette and stare out at the vista of rooftops, where pigeons circled in the winter sky,” (Johnson 122). Allen’s book, Howl, had just been released in New York and “you could find the small, square, black and white books in only two places in the city – Elise’s kitchen and the Eighth Street Bookshop,” (Johnson 122). But in supporting Allen, she was losing herself, never attempting to have her own work published. In “Sitting” she writes:

Sitting with you in the kitchen

Talking of anything

Drinking tea

I love you

Oh I wish you body here

With or without the bearded poem (Knight 158)

She still had that dreamy-love feeling that she had when she first met Allen. For her, it was a happy life.

She typed Kaddish for Allen, no small undertaking. It was his “long poem about his mother Naomi… ‘You haven’t done with her yet?’ she asked. A question Allen recorded in his journal,” (Johnson 256). Johnson observes that there is a connection between Elise and Allen’s mother Naomi who, for years, struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness, finally passing away in an institution. He wrote in his journal years later that “I’ve always been attracted to intellectual madwomen,” (Johnson 76). He was not referring to Elise specifically in this statement. She was, in fact, only mentioned twice in his collected journals and letters.

Allen moved to San Francisco, Elise moved in with her parents who agreed she could live with them if she agreed to go into psychoanalysis. She got a job at NBC working overnight typing scripts, but by this time, she’d begun drinking heavily. She was fired from NBC and created a disturbance when she was not told why she was being fired. The police were called. They physically removed her from the NBC offices, breaking her glasses and punching her in the stomach. She was taken to the stationhouse and called her father who told her “This will kill your mother,” (Johnson 164). This is the moment it all starts chipping away and falling apart. It was sudden, but not shocking.

Elise moves to San Francisco and things kept falling apart. The original plan was that she would move there with Joyce Johnson, in fact it was Johnson’s idea (she wanted to be closer to her boyfriend Jack Kerouac). But she left by herself. “Elise, although she wouldn’t come out and say it, wanted to go to San Francisco for purposes of love,” (Johnson 118). Elise sent Johnson postcards, but they were vague and general. Johnson began to panic when the postcards stopped. She called the bar The Place and tried to get a hold of Elise, finally she did. Elise was broke, the scene was weird, and she was only eating one meal a day. She was alive, but not doing well and Johnson continued to worry. Then Connie Sublette was murdered. Connie’s ex-husband Al Sublette was a friend of Jack Kerouac. They were both part of the whole scene in San Francisco. She was out looking for Al when she met Frank Harris, a drug addicted sailor, who raped and killed Connie in an alley. “Her name was Connie, but I read Elise into her story,” (Johnson 201). It turned out that Elise actually did know Connie and gave her a cigarette on the day Connie was killed. “I knew Elise would have tried to look out for her,” (Johnson 200). It was a frightening brush with death, but only Johnson saw the connection.

She was living with an Irish artist, an alcoholic, when she became pregnant. In the days before Row her options weren’t good. She could come up with the few hundred dollars it took to get an illegal abortion, go to Mexico, or attempt to get a legal psychiatric abortion. Elise chose the latter. She had no money, so it was really the only viable choice she had. She finally got the abortion around January, the new year, but by now, several months had passed, she had to have a full hysterectomy. She only confided this in her friend Leo Skir, eventually, and he tells Joyce Johnson that “the fetus had grown too large for a simple D&C. She had to have a hysterectomy,” (Skir 153). It would have been the wrong decision for her to have had the baby considering her present state, but it had to have weighed heavily on her, especially since the fetus had developed so much. After the abortion, she moved back to New York and back with her parents in Washington Heights.

Elise was almost immediately placed in Bellevue Hospital for Hepatitis and a mental breakdown. She was doing drugs, she had fallen apart completely. “She was spinning downward very fast, experiments with drugs that stretched the mind until it came apart… Methadrine withered her,” (Johnson 257). Johnson had her first book, Come and Join the Dance, published and Elise featured prominently (though fictionally) in it. Her character was named “Kay” and Elise became obsessed by the connection between Johnson’s Kay and the “Kay” from Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group. In McCarthy’s novel, Kay falls (or jumps) from her hotel’s balcony while searching for enemy planes.

It was February when Elise jumped from her parent’s living room window. Jumped isn’t the right description. She threw herself through a closed and locked window and landed in the apartment’s courtyard. Her parents tried to destroy all of Elise’s journals, poems and writings. They mostly succeeded, but Leo Skir was able to rescue about 80 poems he took from Elise’s closet when he went to her parent’s home to pay his respects. Eventually, these were published in the Evergreen Review. It was the first time any of her work was published. The following is believed to be her last poem:

No love

No compassion

No intelligence

No beauty

No humility

Twenty-seven years is enough

Mother – too late – years of meanness – I’m sorry

Daddy – What happened?

Allen – I’m sorry

Peter – Holy Rose Youth

Betty – Such womanly bravery

Keith – Thank you

Joyce – So girl beautiful

Howard – Baby take care

Leo – Open the windows and Shalom

Carol – Let it happen

Let me out now please –

Please let me in (Knight 165)

Six Gallery Reading

On the anniversary of the Six Gallery Reading.

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti Tribute

On October 2nd, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his Beat bookstore and publisher, City Lights, will receive Litquake’s 2010 Barbary Award at Herbst Theater.

The celebration will be attended by Tom Waits,  Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Winona Ryder, Michael McClure and Eric Drooker. Continue Reading…

HST & the Music of the Sixties

Hunter S. Thompson painting

(c)Illustration Isaac Bonan

From Beatdom #7.

by David S. Wills

Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people will call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel.

Music is a theme that crops up throughout the entirety of Hunter S. Thompson’s bibliography. It was an incredibly important aspect of his life, and he always took the time to listen to what he wanted. Those who know about Thompson know that Bob Dylan was one of his heroes, and it is often claimed his favourite song of all time was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But, of course, there was more. Thompson’s interests were diverse. As a teenager he loved Bing Crosby, whose “Galway Bay” was once his favourite song. He tended to gravitate towards music that reflected the world around him – from Kentucky bluegrass to San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll.

Thompson’s times were wild ones. He lived through the 1960s and 70s, fully immersed in the counterculture of the era. He lived in the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love and watched the musicians of his generation artfully reflect their environment, like he was doing with his writing.

Indeed, Thompson respected their work as much as that of any contemporary writer. He once said, “I’ve been arguing for years now that music is the New Literature, that Dylan is the 1960s’ answer to Hemingway.”

Music was fuel for him, too. Not only did he respect these artists as fellow documenters of the world, but they meant something to him. Good music drove him onwards. It helped him write. And he loved those bands and did what he could to push their careers forward.

As Douglas Brinkley puts it,

He would do anything for the music he liked – people like Warren Zevon, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker; old Kentucky bluegrass masters like the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt; and some blues people like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dizon. Those were gods to him, and a lot of them were friends. He would do anything to promote their CDs, to go to their concerts, to talk them up. But his interest in rock music was not as deep as people think. Because he wrote for Rolling Stone, people sometimes think he was a big music guy. Hunter was not up on current music and didn’t really care to be. He knew what he liked: some Bruce Springsteen; Van Morrison could really get him writing. He knew Leonard Cohen songs by heart. But it was Dylan first and foremost. Any of the Dylan live bootlegs he thought was the greatest thing of all time.”

The above note is telling, but far from complete. Thompson’s favourites spanned decades and genres. He loved folk and bluegrass, but also the various forms of rock music. He was discerning, too. In Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Brinkley also talks about Thompson refusing to sell quotes from his writing to bands that he didn’t like. In his later years musicians would approach him and what mattered was whether or not he liked their style – not how much they were willing to pay. That is telling for a man whose life was spent chasing paycheques and fighting expenses.

In 1970, Thompson took the time to compose a list of his favourite music of the 1960s (which he posed as “Raoul Duke’s” favourite music) in a letter to his editors at Rolling Stone. The list might be surprising for readers of his work. (It should also be noted that two of these albums weren’t even released during the 1960s!)

1)      Herbie Mann’s 1969 Memphis Underground

2)      Bob Dylan’s 1965 Bringing It All Back Home (especially noted as “Mr. Tambourine Man” in his letter)

3)      Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited

4)      The Grateful Dead’s 1970 Workingman’s Dead

5)      The Rolling Stones’ 1969 Let it Bleed

6)      Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 Buffalo Springfield

7)      Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 Surrealistic Pillow

8)      Roland Kirk’s “various albums”

9)      Miles Davis’s 1959 Sketches of Spain

10)  Sandy Bull’s 1965 Inventions

With that list in mind, it should prove useful to explore a few names in depth – to look closely at the relationship between Hunter S. Thompson and the music he loved.

Bob Dylan

Dylan is a goddamn phenomenon, pure gold, and as mean as a snake.

That quote says it all, really. One could open nearly any Hunter S. Thompson book and find a glowing reference to Dylan. Dylan was there throughout much of Thompson’s life, singing about the changing times and documenting the turmoil of an unjust world. Thompson loved Dylan’s work, and viewed Dylan as one of his personal heroes. In interviews with Playboy and SPIN magazine he has even gone as far as to compare himself favourably with Dylan. He viewed both of them as artists against the world; leaders of the underground.

He told Harold Conrad that Dylan was one of the three most important men alive (alongside Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro) and went on to say,

Bobby Dylan is the purest, most intelligent voice of our time. Nobody else has a body of work over twenty years as clear and intelligent. He always speaks for the time.

Let’s see. I just got the new Bob Dylan box set from the Rolling Thunder tour from 1975. It’s kind of a big package with a book and several CDs in there. It’s maybe the best rock and roll album I’ve ever heard.


In spite of the above list, one could argue pretty vigorously that Thompson’s favourite song of all time was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Numerous sources testify to the fact that he would listen to this song before writing, and that it was a constant force throughout much of his life. He first heard it whilst living in San Francisco – surrounded by the musical forces of his day – and would play it over his custom-made 100 watt speakers from his home in the Rocky Mountains. When his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was published, Thompson dedicated it “to Bob Dylan, for Mister Tambourine Man.” Then, after his death – as decided decades earlier – it was the song that played as his ashes were fired from a giant Gonzo Fist at Owl Farm.

The story of an artist chasing his muse, it spoke to Thompson like no other song.

As a struggling journalist Thompson constantly wrote to his friends and family, and frequently advised them to listen to Dylan. He kept promising to send Paul Semonin – a friend in Africa – some Bob Dylan records, but of course, he kept running into financial issues. It is clear, however, that he felt Dylan’s work was important enough to spread around. When he first met the Hell’s Angels, in a story that is well known to Gonzo fans, Thompson brought the biker gang back to his apartment, while his wife and child cowered in another room. The group partied all night, with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan providing the soundtrack to this important meeting.

In 1968, Thompson wrote a long piece about hippy music in 1967, that appears at the very start of Fear and Loathing in America. In it, Thompson first describes Bob Dylan and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He portrays Dylan as “the original hippy,” and his song as “both an epitaph and a swan-song for the… ‘hippy phenomenon.’”

Later in his career, Thompson found himself drawn to presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. This was largely due to Carter’s famous Law Day Address, from May 4 1974. For Thompson, justice meant the world. He was obsessed with right and wrong, and about the corruption and greed that he saw controlling his country. Carter’s speech meant a lot to him, and did so partly because Carter referred to Thompson’s favourite artist:

The other source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. After listening to his records about “The Ballad of Hattie Carol” and “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Times, They Are a-Changing,” I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.


Thompson recorded this speech and would play it back for friends, comparing it to General MacArthur’s “old soldiers never die” address.

This is perhaps a key to why Dylan meant so much to Thompson – a man whose work is characterised by an unrelenting attack on hypocrisy and injustice. Thompson saw in both Carter and Dylan an awareness of what was truly right. Dylan was a magnificent poet, but his work – like Thompson’s – sought to frame the guilty for their crimes, to expose the rank side of modern life and explore the possibility of change.

Jefferson Airplane


Although Jefferson Airplane only arrives at number six on Thompson’s list of his favourite albums of the sixties, a reading of his writing from and about that particular decade would suggest that he thought about the band, and in particular their singer, Grace Slick, a whole lot more than anyone except Bob Dylan.

His sixties-era writing is packed with references to his time in San Francisco, living in the Haight-Ashbury, and frequenting the Matrix. One night he witnessed the debut of a band called the Jefferson Airplane, and immediately began telling people about them. He seems to labour this point in his letters… He sent numerous notes to people to let them know that he “discovered” the Jefferson Airplane, and that he played some role in their rise to success.

He supposedly phoned Ralph Gleason and told him about the new band. Gleason became known for championing the Jefferson Airplane and helping them reach a greater audience.

The Matrix played a large part in Thompson’s life for a short period of time. Whilst writing Hell’s Angels, he used to ride through North Beach on his motorcycle, seemingly, just to watch Grace Slick in action. He said that she “made even the worst Matrix nights worth sitting through.”

After writing the book, whilst on his gruelling publicity tour, Surrealistic Pillow was released. Thompson demanded time out from his schedule, just to listen to the record. He could barely contain his excitement.

Upon hearing the first note I smiled. This was the triumph of the San Francisco people. We were all making it, riding a magical wave which we didn’t think would break.

His favourite Airplane song was, of course, “White Rabbit,” which he listened to for years after he left San Francisco. He claimed that its sound not only captured a vibe or a feeling, but a whole generation. It was the song of the sixties, in his eyes. When asked what he was trying to convey in his own work, Thompson once played Surrealistic Pillow for his publicist and said that was it. He said, “I could’ve written these lyrics myself. Today is my time.”

In his opus magnum, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Matrix appears in a brief flashback scene to what came before the fall of the sixties. It is viewed as an example of that wave that Thompson mentioned above, as well as in a more famous segment of his book. The song “White Rabbit” also appears in the novel. In one of the book’s more memorable moments, Dr. Gonzo demands that Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) play “White Rabbit” for him:

“Let it roll!” he screamed. “Just as high as the fucker can go! and when it comes to that fantastic bit where the rabbit bites its own head off, I want you to throw that fuckin radio into the tub with me.”


When Thompson left San Francisco and moved to Woody Creek, he found himself a home away from the madness. It was a place he could come to escape the world, and to give him some sense of security.

He needed his music, though. Away from the action, he had a custom-made 100watt amp that he used to blast inspiring music out over the mountains. These songs were fuel for his writing.

He once said,

I like to load up on mescaline and turn my amplifier up to 110 decibels for a taste of ‘White Rabbit’ while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide.


The Grateful Dead

Thompson’s love for the Grateful Dead is well known. He frequently makes reference to owning at least one Grateful Dead t-shirt, and the band’s name pops up throughout his body of work. Thompson even shared the same literary agent as the band.

As mentioned his list of favourite albums of the sixties, Thompson had a particular fondness for Workingman’s Dead. He said, in a letter found in his Fear and Loathing in America collection: “I think Workingman’s Dead is the heaviest thing since Highway 61 or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’”

His favourite song from this album – which it should be mentioned once again was released in 1970 and is thus not really a sixties album… – was “New Speedway Boogie.” This song was written in 1969 about the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, by a gang of Hell’s Angels who were hired as security. It was written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

Thompson once said: “…at the moment my writing room is full of ‘New Speedway Boogie’ by the Grateful Dead. It says more than anything I’ve read in five years.”

Aside from the three “Hunter’s” involved, and the familiarity of the violence of the Hell’s Angels, Thompson was probably drawn to this song as an epitaph of sorts for the sixties. Thompson’s most famous work – and the most famous passage in that work – concerns the death of the idealism of the 1960s: “the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

After the advent of Gonzo Journalism, Thompson was taken by a burst of inspiration. He had – with Ralph Steadman – taken on the Kentucky Derby in his masterful short, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” He began tossing about the idea of taking Gonzo to all of America’s grand institutions. One such idea involved the America’s Cup. Thompson wrote numerous letters that announced his plan to commandeer a sort of Freak Press yacht and sail into the midst of the race with the Grateful Dead playing on deck.

Later, during George McGovern’s run for presidency in 1972 – which Thompson documented in his classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 – the author tried to bring the Grateful Dead on board the democratic nominee’s campaign. In the end, Warren Beatty successfully organised a fundraising concert that included the Dead, while Thompson merely suggested that McGovern go out in public while wearing “my Grateful Dead T-shirt.”

Beatdom's On the Road

Greetings. As you will have gathered from the previous post, there’s not much action over at Beatdom. Beat news reports and our Facebook quote game have been on hiatus, and there hasn’t been much news about issue eight or the long-awaited subscriptions. Continue Reading…

Happy Birthday Bob Kaufman!

On this day in 1925, Bob Kaufman was born.

From Beatdom Issue One:

Bob Kaufman: The Unsung Beat


It always baffles me to find Bob Kaufman omitted from a great many books and documentaries and websites and talk about the Beat Generation. For me, Kaufman is the embodiment of Beat. That is not to say that the more well known names and faces did not embody the spirit they are most widely credited with creating and fulfilling, but rather that Kaufman was as Beatnik as any of them, and people today forget that all too easily. Hell, many critics argue that it was Kaufman who actually coined the phrase “Beat”, and not Jack Kerouac.

What would Kerouac say? Kerouac and his well-known Beat Generation contemporaries respected Kaufman as much as anyone, but he has been downplayed by later critics and fans. In France, where his largest following existed, he was known as the ‘Black American Rimbaud”.

Maybe there is a simple explanation for this apparent amnesia… Kaufman only wrote his poetry down on paper when forced to, preferring instead to read it aloud in public, or to indulge in a little guerrilla poetry, posting notes on shop windows, criticising society and the police. He preferred to recite his works in coffee shops and on the streets, once reading to Ken Kesey before the two knew each other, and frightening the young Kesey with his mad appearance, but impressing him nonetheless. Consequently, little accurate biographical information is available for willing scholars, and Kaufman remains for most a mythical Beat figure.

“My ambition is to be completely forgotten,” he once told Raymond Foye, editor of his collection of poems, The Ancient Rain.

His poetry had many of the influences of the works of other Beats, primarily jazz and Buddhism. He also had drug problems and run-ins with the law. And his life consisted of stories the equal of those that made famous. For example, when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Kaufman took a vow of silence that he never broke until the end of the Vietnam war. When he spoke, he recited a poem he had written, entitled “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” Although he did speak after this, he remained more or less in solitude until his death in 1986.


The following bio is drawn from an extremely wide selection of reading, containing a number of conflicting dates and stories. Although this is testament to the wonderfully elusive life and times of the poet, it also means: Take the info with a pinch of salt, friend.

Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925, to a German Jewish father and a Martinican black Catholic mother. His grandmother was a practitioner of Voodoo, while he was active in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, and later he became a Buddhist. It could therefore be stated that he was influenced in one way or another by a variety of religions and had an unusual and diverse racial heritage.

To add to these experiences, Kaufman joined the Merchant Marines when only thirteen, survived four shipwrecks, and travelled the world, meeting Jack Kerouac. He read widely and studied literature at New York’s The New School, where he met William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He led unions and spoke on the docks on both coast, and was friends with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. In 1944 Kaufman married Ida Berrocal, in 1945 their daughter, Antoinette Victoria, was born, and in 1958, he married his second wife, Eileen Singe.

So when he moved to San Francisco in 1958, with Ginsberg and Burroughs, it would be fair to say that he had gained quite a bit of life experience. He met Ferlinghetti and Corso in San Francisco and helped develop the local literary Renaissance. Here he devoted himself to spontaneous oral poetry that flowed to the beat of jazz and bebop, the music that pulsed through the dives and haunts of the Beatnik North Beach area. He often took his son, Parker (named after Charlie Parker), into coffee houses and cafes, to “hold court”.

With Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine in North Beach, in 1959 (or ’65 or ’75 depending on the used resource). The magazine today exists in name and memory through Beatitude Broadside and Beatitude Press. Coupled with this accomplishment, and the creativity of his poetic performances, Kaufman read at Harvard and was nominated for the English Guinness Award.

However, as with so many Beats, Kaufman found himself addicted to drugs, in financial strife, and in frequent trouble with the law. Then when arrested in New York City for walking on the grass of Washington Square park, he was arrested and forced to undergo electro-shock therapy. So, with the assassination of JFK, Kaufman withdrew into silence. After the end of the war in ‘Nam, he regained some creativity, but soon went into a sort of retirement until his death in 1986.

He published three volumes of poetry, Solitudes Crowded With LonelinessGolden Sardine, and Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. He published Golden Sardines, as well as a number of chapbooks in the mid-sixties, through City Lights. He also founded Beatitude and a variety of ‘Abomunist’ texts, including theAbomunist Manifesto.


Kaufman’s poetry blends high English with street language, the structure and rhythm of African-American speech, surrealism, and the beat and improvisational qualities of jazz. He would recite his poetry aloud in the Coffee Gallery or in diners or during traffic jams, rarely writing them down, except perhaps in loose note form on napkins. Many listeners state that his best performances were done alongside a jazz musician.

Naturally, for a poet so obsessed with the orality of his poems, Kaufman’s work reflects speaking patterns – and not just through reciting his poems aloud. The words that make up his poems are everyday words, and the rhythms reflect everyday speech, in keeping with the style of Walt Whitman, although imbuing it with contemporary streetwise language.

He frequently features in volumes of African-American and avant-garde poetry, but seems forgotten in the predominantly white world of Beat history. But I guess that although he embodied Beat ideals and poetics, he was extremely unique within the bohemian world and was so occupied with new poetic ideas that he is of greater interest to more specific schools of thought than the often overarching generality of Beat literature studies. Of course, more likely than that is the fact that he preferred to not write down his poetry. Conflicting sources would have us believe that Kaufman’s wives wrote his poems down on his behalf, and also that they encouraged him to write them down himself. Either way, published collections of his work only reveal a small section of the full body.

However, although it is mostly true that he was averse to writing down his poetry, a handwritten manuscript was found by incredible fortune in the burning rubble of a hotel fire, from which Kaufman had narrowly escaped. Many of these poems went into The Ancient Rain.

But back to the poems… And Kaufman is frequently compared to twentieth century surrealist painters for his appreciation and use of strong and madly juxtaposed imagery. His use of symbolism is incredibly vivid and sensual. His Whitman-esque use of lists to build images imbued with sound, colour and feeling also draws upon Pound and W.C. Williams in its minimalist economy and effective conveyance. ‘Jazz Chick’ is a great example of such devices, and is easily available to read online.

Happy Birthday Lawrence Ferlinghetti!

Excuse this belated post…

Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned 91 on March 24th.

Ferlinghetti is the author of A Coney Island of the Mind and, of course, the owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. He was the publisher of Ginsberg’s “Howl” among other Beat texts.

The Beat Generation and Travel

More so than any other literary movement, the Beats have influenced the world of travel and have helped shape our perceptions of the world around us. From obvious influences on hitch-hiking to more serious questions relating to the environment, Beat Generation literature and history has played a major role influencing people over the past fifty years.

We often look to Jack Kerouac as the great backpacker, whose On the Road is credited with sending thousands of readers literally on the road… but he certainly wasn’t the perpetual traveller many think, and the other members of the Beat Generation – whom are less well known for their journeys – travelled far more.

It is strange that when one thinks about the Beat Generation one invariably thinks of New York or San Francisco, because between there lay thousands of miles that they all travelled, and beyond them lay a near infinite abyss that many sought to explore. But these were mere catchments for the meeting of minds; where the young writers and artists of their day met and exchanged knowledge – knowledge that lead them on the road, and was informed by their own personal adventures.

Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

Kerouac is the logical starting point for an essay about the Beat Generation and travel. On the Road is undoubtedly the most famous Beat text, and concerned – as the title suggests – travelling. The book detailed Kerouac’s journeys across North America, and inspired subsequent generations of readers, writers and artists to take to the road for spiritual (or non-spiritual) journeys of their own.

Interestingly, Kerouac was not always fond of hitchhiking, although he has had a huge impact upon hitchhikers. He didn’t really do as much travelling as people seem to think, either. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and stayed there until he went to Horace Mann Prep School in New York at seventeen years old. A year later he went to Columbia University on a football scholarship, but broke his leg and eventually signed up for the merchant marines during World War II. He sailed on the S.S. Dorchester to Greenland.

At twenty-five, Kerouac took his first cross-country road trip, and a year later he took his first trip with Neal Cassady. These journeys took Kerouac from one end of America to another, and eventually found their way into the American road classic, On the Road.

On the Road is one book that has changed America. Whether you’ve read it or not, it has had some impact upon your life. Kerouac’s masterpiece has inspired people ever since, and is still as relevant as ever.

“The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. It is one that resonates in American society – a country of immigrants, whose classics include Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. The road has always meant something to America; their histories are irrevocably linked.

The idea of the wilderness and self-reliance has been entangled in American literary history since the beginning, and was most notably explored in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Kerouac also believed that it was important, saying in Lonesome Traveler:

No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.

But mostly it was the idea of non-conformity that appealed to people fifty years ago, and which has inspired readers ever since. Kerouac’s call to “mad” people came at a time when people needed to rebel, and his wild kicks on the roads of America were a wake-up call for millions. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, and to hell with society’s expectations.

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

Colleges [are] nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness.

In both Japhy Ryder and Dean Moriarty Kerouac portrayed an attractive outsider that stood against everything society demanded. He presented romantic depictions of these footloose individuals that etched in the consciousness of his readers a desire to be that free soul.

Japhy Ryder was based on Zen poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac met in San Francisco, after travelling across America with a backpack full of manuscripts. His Buddhist wisdom inspired Kerouac to attempt communing with nature, as depicted in The Dharma Bums.

Perhaps his Book of Sketches is a better example of Kerouac’s travel-writing. He details a nearly three thousand mile hitch-hiking journey from 1952, as he travelled from North Carolina to California, by way of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. In the book he describes every town he visits and every ride he took in travelling across America.

In 1957 Kerouac travelled to Tangier, Morocco, with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. He didn’t enjoy his time there, but helped Burroughs with the concept and title of what would later become Naked Lunch. This journey was recorded in Desolation Angels – which also details his musings on life as he wanders across North America and Europe. The chapter titles in this book include: “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London” and “Passing Through America Again.”

Later, suffering from his inability to deal with fame and his disappointment at not being taken seriously by critics (as they viewed the Beats as a mere fad), Kerouac attempted to heal himself by escaping to Big Sur, as described in the novel of the same name.

After Big Sur, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island and didn’t stray far from her for the rest of his life. They moved together first to Lowell, Massachusetts, and then to St. Petersburg, Florida.

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs doesn’t exactly strike the same image in the minds of travellers as Kerouac, but certainly travelled more than the author of On the Road. His books are hardly odes to nature or travel, but in his life Burroughs moved frequently, and saw much of the world.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs went to school in New Mexico, and then studied at Harvard. With a healthy allowance from his parents, Burroughs travelled frequently from New York to Boston, and travelled around Europe after studying in Vienna. He returned and enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged and moved to Chicago, where he met Lucian Carr.

Carr took Burroughs to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whilst in New York he and Joan Vollmer Adams had a child. The family soon moved to Texas, and then New Orleans. Some of this was described in On the Road.

After being arrested on account of incriminating letters between him and Ginsberg, Burroughs was forced to flee to Mexico, where he famously shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell.

In January 1953 Burroughs travelled to South America, maintaining a constant stream of correspondence with Allen Ginsberg that would later become The Yage Letters. “Yage” was the name of a drug with supposed telekinetic properties for which Burroughs was searching.

In Lima, Peru, he typed up his travel notes and then returned to Mexico, where he sent the final instalment of his journey to Ginsberg. This later became the ending of Queer.

In 2007, Ohio State University Press published Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs. The book details Burroughs’ journey through Ecuador, Columbia and Peru, and gives insight into his personal troubles.

When Burroughs’ legal problems made it impossible for him to live in the cities of his choice he moved to Palm Springs with his parents, and then New York to stay with Ginsberg. After Ginsberg reject his advances, Burroughs travelled to Rome to see Alan Ansen, and then to Tangier, Morocco, to meet Paul Bowles.

Over the next few years Burroughs stayed in Tangiers, working on something that would eventually become Naked Lunch. He was visited by Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, and they helped him with his writing.

In 1959, when looking for a publisher for Naked Lunch, Burroughs went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk to Olympia Press. Amid surrounding legal problems, the novel was published. In the months before and after the book’s publication, Burroughs stayed with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky in the “Beat Hotel.” Ginsberg composed some of “Kaddish” there, while Corso composed “Bomb.

After Paris, Burroughs spent six years in London, where he originally travelled for treatment for his heroin addiction. He returned to the US several times – including to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – before moving to New York in 1974. He took a teaching position and moved into the “Bunker,” a rent-controlled former YMCA gym.

Burroughs travelled around America from time to time, before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his final years.

Clearly Burroughs possessed more of an instinct to travel the world than Kerouac. However, his writing rarely glorifies the act of travelling, unlike his friend, who celebrated the road.

In an unpublished essay that can be found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Burroughs writes,

As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. …

This isn’t exactly the sort of image that invokes pleasant thoughts for most readers, but it shows that Burroughs considered exotic locations and global travel as extremely important. He set these things as a goal for himself, even from a young age.

In his work one could argue Burroughs was more interested in the notion of time-travel than of terrestrial journeying. From actual references to time-travel to the cut-up techniques that carried readers across space and time, Burroughs seemed very interested in having everything in a constant state of flux.

In his essay, “Civilian Defence,” from the collection, The Adding Machine, Burroughs argues for space travel as the future of mankind. He seems to be suggesting that to change is to survive, that we need to move to develop.

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.

Allen Ginsberg

From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:

Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels.

Ginsberg spent his tumultuous youth in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving to Columbia University and meeting Kerouac and Burroughs. He met Neal Cassady there and took trips across America – to Denver and San Francisco. In 1947 he sailed to Dakar, Senegal, and wrote “Dakar Doldrums.”

Ginsberg returned to New York and attempted to “go straight,” but moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved in its poetry scene. In 1951 he took a trip to Mexico to meet Burroughs, but Burroughs had already left for Ecuador. In 1953 Ginsberg returned to explore ancient ruins and experiment with drugs, and in 1956 he visited Kerouac in Mexico City.

In 1955 he read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and became a Beat Generation icon. When Howl and Other Poems was published, City Lights Bookstore was charged with publishing indecent literature, and the trial helped made Ginsberg a celebrity.

During the trial Ginsberg moved to Paris with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. From there they travelled to Tangier to help Burroughs compose Naked Lunch. They returned through Spain to stay in the “Beat Hotel” and help Burroughs sell the book to Olympia Press. In a Parisian café, Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish.”

In 1960 Ginsberg travelled to Chile with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a communist literary conference. He travelled through Bolivia to Lima, Peru, where he tried yage for the first time.

In 1961 Ginsberg and Orlovsky sailed on the SS America for Europe. They looked for Burroughs in Paris. From Paris he travelled through Greece to Israel, meeting Orlovsky, who’d taken a different route.

Together, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled down to East Africa, attending a rally in Nairobi. From Africa they travelled to India, first to Bombay and then Delhi, where they met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger. Ginsberg and Snyder travelled throughout India for fifteen months, consulting as many wise men as they could find.

After India, Ginsberg travelled on his own through Bangkok, Saigon and Cambodia, and then spent five weeks in Japan with Snyder and Kryger. He wrote “The Change” on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo.

In 1965 Ginsberg travelled to Cuba through Mexico, but was kicked out of the country for allegedly calling Raul Castro “gay” and Che Guevara “cute.” The authorities put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia. In Prague Ginsberg discovered his work had become very popular and used his royalties there to travel to Moscow. He travelled back through Warsaw and Auschwitz.

Back in Prague Ginsberg was elected “King of May” by the students of the city, and spent the following few days “running around with groups of students, acting in a spontaneous, improvised manner – making love.”

Eventually he was put on a flight to London after the authorities found his notebook – containing graphically sexual poems and politically charged statements. In London he partied with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and organised a big poetry reading.

On his return to the US Ginsberg learned that his previously deactivated FBI file has been updated with the warning, “these persons are reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.” This was not helpful to someone as passionate about travel as Allen Ginsberg, and for two years he travelled around the US.

In 1967 he flew to Italy and was arrested for “use of certain words” in his poetry. He then travelled back to London and on to Wales, before returning to Italy to meet Ezra Pound.

In1971 a plane ticket to India and West Bengal was anonymously donated, and Ginsberg travelled to the flood and famine ravaged area.

Back in America, Ginsberg was always travelling – seeking wisdom and change. He moved around the country, participating in demonstrations and rallies. He trained with Buddhists, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, and toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.

Ginsberg toured Europe again in 1979 – visiting Cambridge, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome and Tubingen, among other places. He was accompanied by Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.

In the early eighties Ginsberg settled in Boulder, to play a more active role at Naropa, following a series of problems that had troubled the school. During this time he travelled to Nicaragua to work with other poets on stopping American interference in the politics of other nations. (He returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival in 1986.)

He spent eight weeks in China following a 1984 poetry conference with Gary Snyder, and in 1985 travelled in the USSR for another poetry conference. In August and September of 1986 he travelled throughout Eastern Europe – performing in Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and Skopje. In January of 1988 he travelled to Israel to help bring peace to the Middle East. Later that year he returned to Japan to help protest nuclear weapons and airport developments.

After twenty five years, Ginsberg was re-crowned King of May upon his return to Prague in 1990. A few months later he travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent America in the 12th World Congress of Poets.

Continuing to travel right up until 1994, Ginsberg went to France in ’91 and ’92, and then toured Europe in ’93. His four month tour took him around most of Europe, including a ten day teaching job with Anne Waldman.

After selling his personal letters to Stanford University, Ginsberg bought a loft in New York, where he largely remained until his death in 1997.

Neal Cassady

Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

His name may not be as famous as that of Kerouac, but Cassady is well known to any Beat enthusiast. He was portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road: the man Sal Paradise followed on his cross-country trips.

Whilst he may remain most well known for inspiring Kerouac, Cassady influenced many people to enjoy their lives, and to break free of convention. John Clellon Holmes talked about him in Go, Ginsberg referenced him in “Howl” and Hunter S. Thompson mentioned him (unnamed) in Hell’s Angels. He was not only a hero of the Beats, but of many during the following psychedelic era.

It could be said that Cassady lived and died on the road. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. He was a criminal from an early age, always in trouble with the law. He was frequently arrested for car theft, and known as an exhilarating driver.

After meeting Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York City, Kerouac and Cassady travelled across America and into Mexico. Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s life and his letter-writing style, whilst the latter sought advice about novel-writing from Kerouac, who’d already published The Town and the City, a novel featuring a far more conventional style of writing than that for which Kerouac later became known.

Both the subject and style of On the Road owe their existence to Neal Cassady. His impact upon Kerouac cannot be understated.

Cassady settled with his wife, Carolyn, in San Jose, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept in touch with the rest of the Beats, although they all drifted apart philosophically.

In the sixties Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and what seems like an early onset of middle-age, whilst Cassady took to the road again with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In a bus called “Furthur” Cassady took the wheel and drove the Pranksters across America. It was a trip well documented in Tom Wolf’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Cassady travelled to Mexico many times, and in 1968 he died on a railroad track, attempting to walk fifteen miles to the next town. Shortly before his death he told a friend, “Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”

In his short life, Neal Cassady travelled back and forth across North America. His wild antics, footloose life and driving skills inspired many who met him to follow him where he went. He was immortalised in art and literature, and continues to be an inspiration today in sending people on the road.

Gary Snyder

Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that if Allen Ginsberg was the Walt Whitman of the Beat Generation, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau. Through his rugged individualism and Zen peacefulness the young poet made quite an impact upon his contemporaries, introducing the culture of Asia to the West Coast poetry scene.

Snyder was both interested in the teachings of Asian culture and the tough landscape of North America, and his relationship with both is most famously recounted in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder quickly learned the importance of place. He spoke of a Salishan man who “knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was.” The mountains and forests of his part of the world were dangerous and beautiful places, and respect and awareness of them were key to his development. Knowing himself inside and out was essential for Snyder’s growth and survival.

From a young age Snyder was fascinated with Asia. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States, revelling in the diversity of the cities.

The geographical significance of East Asia to the West coast was palpable, as I was growing up. Seattle had a Chinatown, the Seattle Art Museum had a big East Asian collection, one of my playmates was a Japanese boy whose father was a farmer, we all knew that the Indians were racially related to the East Asians and that they had got there via Alaska… There [was]… a constant sense of exchange.

After years of studying Asian culture and teaching himself to meditate, Snyder was offered a scholarship to study in Japan. His application for a passport was initially turned down after the State Department announced there had been allegations he was a communist. (This was shortly after the 1955 Six Gallery Reading, at which Snyder read “A Berry Feast.”)

Snyder studied and travelled in Japan, and eventually became a disciple of Miura Isshu. He mastered Japanese, worked on translations, learned about forestry and formally became a Buddhist.

His return to North America in 1958 took him through the Persian Gulf, Turkey and various Pacific Islands, whilst he worked as a crewman on an oil freighter.

Snyder returned to Japan in 1959 with Joanne Kyger, whom he married in February 1960. Over the next thirteen years he travelled back and forth between Japan and America, occasionally living as a monk, although without formally becoming a priest.

As mentioned in the “Allen Ginsberg” section of this essay, Snyder and Ginsberg travelled together throughout India, seeking advice from holy men.

Between 1967 and 1968 Snyder spent time living with “the Tribe” on a small island in the East China Sea, practicing back-to-the-land living. Shortly after, Snyder moved back to America and settled with his second wife – Masa Uehara – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California. He maintained a strong interest in back-to-the-land living after returning.

Gary Snyder’s poetry often reflects his relationship with the natural world. Throughout his life he worked close to the land, and in his poems we see intimate portraits of the world around him. Issues of forestry and geomorphology are frequently addressed in his poems, as well as in his essays and interviews.

In 1974 Snyder’s Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Turtle Island” is a Native American name for the North American continent, and Snyder believed that by referring to it as such, it was possible to change contemporary perceptions of the land to a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.

Mountains and Rivers Without End was published in 1996, and celebrates the inhabitation of certain places on our planet.

Today there is an incredible volume of work concerning the poetry of Gary Snyder, and it largely divides its focus between his interest in Asian culture and the environment. It is pretty much agreed, however, that the natural world and a strong sense of community have pervaded his works throughout his entire career.

Gregory Corso

The only member of the Beat Generation to have actually been born in Greenwich Village was Gregory Corso. He was the youngest of the Beats, and had an extremely tough childhood, growing up on the streets of New York without a mother and did time in both the Tombs and Clinton Correctional Facility.

He met Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in New York and was soon introduced to the rest of the Beats. In 1954 he moved to Boston and educated himself. His first book of poetry was released with the help of Harvard students.

Corso worked various jobs across America, and stayed for a while in San Francisco, performing with Kerouac and becoming a well known member of the Beats.

Between 1957 and 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that would make up Gasoline, which was published by City Lights. In October of 1958 he went to Rome to visit Percy Byssthe Shelley’s tomb. He travelled briefly to Tangier to meet Ginsberg and Orlovsky, and brought them back to Paris to live in the Beat Hotel. In 1961 he briefly visited Greece. In February 1963 he travelled to London.

It seems that Corso came to consider Europe his home, in spite of having been born in New York. His travels there inspired him, and he spent many years living in Paris. During a return to New York he said: “It dawns upon me that my maturing years were had in Europe – and lo, Europe seems my home and [New York], a strange land.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Ferlinghetti claimed to have been a bohemian from another era, rather than a Beat. Indeed, he isn’t often viewed in the same light. He was the publisher of the Beats, more than a Beat Generation writer, and he lived a more stable life. While Ginsberg, Kerouac and co. were on the road, gaining inspiration and living their footloose lives, Ferlinghetti was mostly settled in San Francisco.

He travelled a little – going to Japan during World War II and studying in Paris after attending Columbia University. He lived in France between 1947 and 1951.

Politics and social justice were always important to Ferlinghetti, and he was active with Ginsberg in protesting and demonstrating for change. He read poetry across America, Europe and Latin America, and much of the inspiration for his work came from his travels through France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua.

His poems are often political and social, but also celebrate the natural world.

Michael McClure

McClure has never been renowned for his travelling or travel writing, but rather for his depictions of nature and animal consciousness. His poems are organised organically in line with his appreciation of the purity of nature. They carry the listener (as McClure’s delivery of his poems is fantastic, and often accompanied by music) to totally different place.

He first read his poetry aloud at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and has since read at the Fillmore Ballroom, San Francisco’s Human Be-in, Airlift Africa, Yale University, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He even read to an audience of lions at San Francisco Zoo. He has read all around the world, including Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and in a Mexico City bull ring.

His travels have carried him around North America, South America, Africa and much of Asia.

Bob Kaufman

Kaufman was one of thirteen children, and at age thirteen he ran away from the chaos of his New Orleans home. He joined the Merchant Marine and spent twenty years travelling the world. It is said that in this time he circled the globe nine times.

He met Jack Kerouac and travelled to San Francisco to become a part of the poetry renaissance. He rarely wrote his poems down, preferring to read them aloud in coffee shops.

Kaufman was always more popular in France than in America, and consequently the bulk of his papers can be found in the Sorbonne, Paris. Today his written work is hard to find.

Harold Norse

Norse was born in Brooklyn and attended New York University. After graduating in 1951 Norse spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe and North Africa.

Between 1954 and 1959 he lived and wrote in Italy. He worked on translations and used street hustlers to decode the local dialects.

In 1960 Norse moved into the Beat Hotel in Paris, with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Whilst in Paris he wrote the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel.

Like many of the Beats, Norse travelled to Tangier after reading the work of Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968 to live in Los Angeles, befriending Charles Bukowski, before spending the rest of his life in San Francisco.

Do the Beats Matter Today?

by Harry Burrus

When Jack Kerouac died in 1969, only one of his 20+ books was in print. At the time, many critics announced the Beat Generation was irrelevant and had faded away. Others claimed the Beats were an insignificant force, addicted to sex and drugs, and therefore of little permanent influence, and only interested in the frivolity of having “kicks.” They contended the Beats’ writing would not hold up over time. However, objective evidence clearly establishes those critics were dead wrong.

The essential tenets of Beat philosophy still resonate strongly today. The Beats’ rants against excessive consumerism, government control and torture, censorship, the increasing power of the Pentagon, and the proliferation of American soldiers in foreign countries are cogent now. The Beats respected and valued the land and were advocates for a healthy world environment, all of which continue to be significant concerns. They promoted tolerance of ideological differences, which they saw as being subverted to a political sameness — the position if you aren’t in agreement with us, you’re against us. Sound familiar?

Recognizing the current impact of the Beats, William S. Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris notes,

They asked the relevant question themselves. It was one of the things that united the writers and adventurers we call Beat — and their answers looked both backwards (glancing conservatively, towards a ‘lost’ American past) and forwards, nostalgically (to face looming death, the rags of old age and the ruins of civilization) and heroically (to face the unknown, that which lies beyond the little bit of ourselves we know). So, perhaps they matter because, at their best, they inspire us to look back for what’s been lost and forward to what we need to lose.

In Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs revealed he did not share the rose-tinted view of most Americans in the post-WWII era. With microscopic detail, he peeled away the picturesque façade of modern society, exposing it for what it really was. He predicted the late 20th century AIDS crisis and the advent of the Internet with its viruses, worms, and spam. He forecasted the war on drugs and terrorists. Underscoring the continuing literary and social significance of William S. Burroughs, Harris has edited and authored a number of Burroughs books: The Letters of WSB, 1945-1959Yage Letters Redux; Junky: the definitive text of JunkWilliam Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination; and Everything Lost, the Latin American Notebook of WSB.

Similarly, in Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland extols the importance of Kerouac today. He focuses on the Jack Kerouac-based character Sal Paradise in On the Road instead of the one who usually attracts the most attention, Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady), who enthusiastically pursues sex, speed, and jazz in the novel. Leland analyzes Paradise’s impressions from his journeys with Moriarty. He explains that what Paradise learns about love, having a work ethic, valuing art and education, and being spiritual are life lessons that still echo today.

Another aspect of Kerouac’s work with current ramifications is his criticism of haiku. He was a major influence in bringing haiku to the West. His interpretation of haiku was experimental and innovative. His creation of “Western haiku” materially impacts current poets’ approach to creating haiku today.

City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco sells ten copies of On the Road daily. The Kerouac estate claims that over 100,000 copies of OTR are sold each year. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado continues to attract students, encouraging them to link the past to the present and to apply a fresh approach to their writing. Stanford University bought Ginsberg’s archive and the New York Public Library recently purchased William S. Burroughs’ literary archive.

Time not only has substantiated the merit of the writing of the Beats, but has validated it as well. The Beat worldview embraced life and celebrated the human condition. On the Road’s raw energy encourages curiosity, the refusal to accept the status quo, and the need to investigate what lies over the horizon. It inspires self-pride and the drive to succeed, regardless of social status. The Beats’ criticism of America in the 1940s and 1950s is instructional because it applies to many of the conditions confronting the United States today. Current writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers cite the Beats as their beacons. New bios as well as scholarly books examining their writing, lives, and values continue to come out with great frequency. Beat magazines, paper and online, are widely read and popular. Their book sales are the highest ever. Universities have Beat literature as part of their curriculum. The significance of the Beat writers on current American literature continues to evolve because new work has only recently been discovered. The unpublished work is revealed in books and magazines and reviewed by international newspapers and scholars. The Beats are alive and well in these first few years of the 21stcentury and continue to pervade our lives today.

Beatdom in San Francisco

Wills, D., ‘Beatdom in San Francisco’ in Wills, D., Beatdom Vol. 2 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2008)

I woke up about six and lay and waited for the sun to rise to signal the arrival of seven, when breakfast was available. It was my first night in the Adelaide, my first night in the city. I felt ok, despite not remembering going to bed, or even checking in. I had arrived in San Francisco at about half three the previous afternoon, and had gotten off the bus at Pier 39. Here, I had strolled about the gaudy and awful tourist trap for maybe twenty minutes, before seeking out the innards of the city – the real San Francisco. I wanted to see North Beach, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Haight… I wanted to experience San Francisco for real, and more importantly, I wanted to step in the footsteps of the Beats and hit the beaten streets with hip steps. Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Ferlinghetti! All the great poets of the city had wandered back and forth along the North Beach and Haight areas and gained inspiration and dug the whole air of San Fran, and I wanted to follow them and learn. And so I got away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Piers and headed straight and unguided into the residential heart of the city, walking through the privileged streets with no maps, using their straight block formations as reference, knowing I wanted to find Union Square, South, from where I would head two blocks West to Isadora Duncan.

I found Bob Kaufman street near Telegraph Hill and dug them both and took innumerable photos with my digital camera – Coit Tower, the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, the sign that simply read ‘Bob Kaufman’. I walked about and hit dead ends and steep hills and felt safe and happy to be in the sun in a welcoming city, seeing sights left, right and centre, and climbing to every peak to look around and see every thing, and I did. I dug it all so fucking much it made my heart leap into my throat and choke me.

I found Washington Square and sat staring stupidly at the cathedral – Peter and Paul, people praying outside. I turned and faced that which I worshiped – chicks playing football (soccer) in little shorts and tight tops, coffee shops by the park, bars full of Italians and tourists drinking European beers, and I dug it all. I walked on, hungry and looking for a San Fran eatery. I thought maybe something Italian, or at least sold in an Italian place, and I found a café and bought an iced coffee and a bagel, and sat and ate them at the window, watching the chicks cut by in their mini skirts and little denim shorts. I looked around at all the pizzerias and delis and olde Italian businesses.

Then I continued on down towards the centre, hoping like hell to find the North Beach crossing that housed the Beat Museum, City Lights, Vesuvios, Toscas, Kerouac Alley… all the famous Beat locations. I passed through the streets and streets of Chinese restaurants and grocery stores and every sign and word was uttered and written in Chinese, not in English, like Asian places back in Britain. No, everything was owned and operated and marketed at the Chinese people living in the part of the city that was respectfully theirs. I walked on Southwards to that junction I sought, the meeting place of Little Italy and Chinatown and the Beats. It was somewhere around Broadway and Columbus, I recalled. So I did what I’d realised was a sensible thing to do in American cities and just head in one direction, because the streets just went East-to-West, North-to-South, and I’d cross either Columbus or Broadway somewhere. And I did. I found Broadway and turned left, sticking to Chinatown, and then found the red-and-black front of the Beat Museum and decided I’d see that on Sunday, it being Friday this now. Saturday would be spent in the Haight area of town, seeing the Kerouac Discussion at the Booksmith and digging all the West side had to offer. I turned right and crossed the big junction and found City Lights. City Lights- the haven of the Beat fan, where Ferlinghetti published the seminal works of the Generation and where all Beat books could now be found; a shop I had wanted to visit for years, and was now almost scared to go inside. But I did. I checked my backpack at the door and wandered on in, past all the first floor stuff you’d find in any decent bookstore and up the stairs to the poetry/ Beat section: a small room with two guys discussing Keats in a corner, and chairs littering the floor with signs inviting the customers to sit and read. The shelves were all old and second-hand-looking bookcases full of On the Road’s and Howl’s and Junky’s and collections of all great poets at the other side of the room, and there were posters and postcards of the Beat Generation figures I worshipped as gods, and photos of these legends for sale, but all priced too high for me to consider purchasing.

But I was frantically trying to see the city and keep to some kind of schedule. Part of me fell into my old philosophy of not needing to see everything, because anything is better than nothing, and part of me was captured in the thrills of being a lone traveller in a new city, on some mission to see the sights I deemed necessary to see, and write them up for my little magazine, Beatdom. I cared not for the usual tourist traps, but didn’t rule them out altogether. I wanted to see as much as possible and to move on, getting back to the organic farm, on which I was working, on Monday. Friday was for exploring and checking in, Saturday for seeing the Haight-Ashbury district and the West, and Sunday for thoroughly exploring North Beach – seeking out the Beats’ houses and haunts and living their life for a whole day in some little way.

So I looked around City Lights for half an hour and then skipped outside to Kerouac Alley and took a few photos of the store, and of Vesuvios and Toscas and the poetry and art in the alleyway, on the ground and on the walls, the works of Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and a city ready eventually to embrace its cultural past like so few others. Then I went into Vesuvios and ordered a double rum, showed my Scottish driver’s licence as ID, and took the drink upstairs to sit by the windows and look out at the street I’d long wished to visit. I sat and drank and looked at the tourists being lectured of the significance of City Lights on literary history, and at the uncaring Asians that wandered by with some contempt for the tourist idiots, and then in at the bar and at the mini model of a sign saying, “Kerouac Alley-><-Columbus” and had a little nodding-head Beatnik beside it, and posters on the was of Burroughs and his guns, Ginsberg naked with Corso, Kerouac looking handsome… All of it was old and Beatnik, and there was baseball on the TV and the subtitles giving away the muted words of the commentators told me of the departure from the Giants of the only baseball played I knew – Barry Bonds. Down below, at the bar, the barman and bargirl were discussing Bonds’ departure and the end of a sporting era that I tried to comprehend but couldn’t, so I went back to sipping my rum and watching the streets. I explored the painting on the side of the City Lights building, connected to some kind of restaurant, which had been painted by a number of people, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Twenty-somethings kept coming along and taking photos in pairs and couples, and I watched as it became evident that in each pair or couple, only one of them would know about the Beats and the other would be totally ignorant, and I listened as one would explain to the other with glaring errors and omissions, the significance of City Lights. None got the significance of Vesuvios, such as it was.

The bargirl, blonde and skinny and tall and pretty, came by to pick up the glasses from the empty tables and asked me if I wanted a drink, and I said a Guinness, and I got it, paying five dollars and tipping her one dollar. I sipped the Guinness and tried to follow the baseball, and sat watching, not understanding for maybe an hour, until the jazz joint across the way opened and I sat and watched the folks arrive to go there, and I considered crossing the street and listening to the jazz. But nowadays jazz was the music of the middle-aged, and no longer the sound of youth and rebellion. Yes, it still was something one could dance vigorously to, but instead it was the cats that listened to it, but now were too old and mature and sensible to dance like crazed, sweaty beasts, and so sat in their sharp suits, sipping whiskey and wine at tables, and talking city banter and listening to the background music of black sax players and pianists, only really tapping their fingers, or if the sound really got going they might nod their heads and reference the music in conversation before moving on to the next suburban topic.

So I stayed in Vesuvios and tried to dig it. It probably never was a Beat haven, but rather an average bar frequented by the Beats and immortalised in Beat history by the scrawlings in the wall, long since painted over, that declared Kerouac and Cassady banned since having been thrown out for drunkenness. The owners had capitalised on Beat popularity by naming a drink after Kerouac and by covering the walls in Beat art and ads and references. And back in the day, they had hired people to dress in black, wear berets and play bongos in the window. It really was a cool little place, though. A few groups of middle-aged folks came and sat down at tables and I just sat there on my own, ordering another Guinness and watching the crowds, inside and out.

After an hour, I wandered downstairs to the bathroom, and then when I came out I sat at the bar to drink, trying to get more of a feel for the Vesuvios customers. I ordered another Guinness and drank it quickly, and then had a Jack Kerouac – a shot of tequila, a shot of rum and a dash of orange and cranberry. It tasted harsh with the first sip, but then sweet with the second, and after that it barely tasted of anything. I fired it away and had another. Then some old cat came and sat next to me – about sixty years old with a grey moustache and a face that was drawn and tired and experienced beyond any understanding of fairness. I bought him a Guinness and the old guy bought me another when I’d finished my own drink. We both were quickly drunk and talking about Vietnam and America and politics and family.

“I’m fifty-nine years old and I’ll never stop working,” he said. “I can’t. I can’t afford to. This country… I served in a war for this country, and worked from coast to coast, and at my age I know I’m going to have to keep on working ‘til I drop, for no one’ll take care of me. My daughter can’t afford to, though she’d try. The government won’t. They don’t treat their veterans well.”

“A third of all America’s homeless are war veterans,” I said, quoting an appeal advertisement I’d read in San Luis Obispo.

We kept on talking about the injustices and flaws of the American government, about the bullshit of the Christian religion for luring folks into this sense of hope that was utterly useless and no more than a method of social control, about the man’s family, who were all great kids but helpless in the face of a cruel world, about his working all over America… I could remember almost none of what was said the next day, except perhaps saying, “I’m going to have to go, I don’t have any money,” and the old guy replying, “Don’t worry, I’ll get your drinks.” I couldn’t remember leaving the bar or walking to the hostel, but the next morning I woke up where I’d intended to go.

I spent the day in Haight-Ashbury, terribly depressed from the booze and wandering confused through the Buena Vista and Golden Gate Parks, back and forth along the Haight and trying to figure what to do until the Jack Kerouac Conference at seven. It had been about seven in the morning that I’d left my hostel, and I tried and succeeded in killing almost twelve hours with wandering. But eventually I had to stop off at the Booksmith and buy a signed copy of Anita Thompson’s The Gonzo Way, just so I had something to sit and do. I also hit a half dozen coffee shops along the Haight, and got bored of the overwhelming procession of sixties throwback shops, retailing everything at extortionate prices.

Twenty past six came and I walked the five minute walk from Buena Vista Park to the All Saints Church, certain that the place would be closed, but that people connected to the event would be waiting, and so I’d be able to at least talk to someone, if only briefly, because when it came to Kerouac and literature, I often came out of my shell and faced the world, making friends and acquaintances. So I wandered along and found the place open and a few people inside, mostly setting up a stall selling books by Barry Gifford, Michael McClure, Edie Parker and Jack Kerouac. I spoke to the guy at the door who was there to meet and greet, and told him my name, and the guy went and found another, less timid, guy, who took me to one of three reserved seats right up front.

“You’re from Scotland,” the guy, who had presumably been the owner of the Booksmith, with whom I had spoken via e-mail weeks earlier, said.

“That’s right. I’m here on press duties. From Beatdom Magazine.” I tried my best to sound like Hunter S Thompson, but the owner just smiled, said “yes”, and walked back to his little social group by the book stall.

Now I was happy. Ok, so I’d been happy at times during the day, but now I could hardly wipe the smugness from my fact as I looked around the room, which was large and old and slowly filling up with folks who did not have reserved seats and were not sitting in the front row, and who did not own their own magazine, and were not with the press, and did not know the ins and outs of Jack Kerouac’s life and I did. I was sitting here in the church, early and awaiting the even, like I’d wanted to do since I first heard of the idea, months earlier, and I had arranged to find my way to an unexplored city, battled hellish depression, and managed to make here. I had my camera, too, and intended to take a few shots for the next issue and for the website. I sat and looked around, watching the crowd pour in, scanning the faces for any recognisable ones – Ferlinghetti, McClure, Gifford, even Russell Brand, who was reportedly in town, shooting a documentary about On the Road. But I recognised no one, so I just sat and held my head high, the journalist at the front, no one knowing how tough my day had been or how far into the gory depths of madness I’d fallen only a few hours earlier.

After a while Gifford and McClure appeared, alongside some girl called Suzanne, from City Lights, and the author of the new Kerouac biography, John Leland. They stood about and talked, the two old men, the new kid on the block, and the girl from the shop who’d been picked by her bosses, co-sponsors, to read from a book they had published, by the deceased Edie Parker. Suzanne sat with a crowd of artists and poets and new modern bohemian wannabe suburbanites, who sat behind me. They talked as though they knew what they were saying, but they made little or no sense, and were clearly just digging being there and didn’t really know shit all about Jack Kerouac or literature. Suzanne seemed nice, though, and very humble in spite of her privileged position as spokesperson for the women of the Beats, a group of chicks written out by history, but who were held in great regard by the Beat artists themselves back, back in the day… Leland sat on his own, an intelligent and well read fellow, awkward and shy and set apart from the more experienced old guard of Gifford and McClure, who both sat uncomfortably on the edge of the little stage, as a crowded hall of people leered at them and took photos, probably trying to figure out which one was which, or maybe not caring. They looked like the old traditional grandfathers – the grumpy old coot and the sweet old ditherer. McClure had the whiter hair, the constant smile, the twinkling blue eyes, the nervous shakes at the presence of a great crowd of young Beatnik devotees, spurred to attention by the half-century anniversary of a piece of literature of his contemporary. Gifford had the darker hair, slightly younger, looking older more likely because of frowning too much, with piercing dark eyes and a “don’t you dare fuck with me!” kind of stance, though he seemed to enjoy sharing a laugh with McClure.

The man I had talked to, the owner of the Booksmith, took the mike and introduced the speakers, who took their seats. McClure, the oldest, didn’t bother with stairs, but instead rolled on up the side of the stage and stumbled to his feet and sat down in the middle. Leland acted as moderator, and invited McClure to offer a presentation as a starting point, to which McClure responded by joking with the audience about having not known of such an arrangement, and consequently went rambling into some grandfather-like “Jack and me” type story, which had the folks in the crowd laughing, and brought a great grin to Gifford’s face. The whole time, however, McClure shook, and it appeared to me that the shakes came from nervousness and not some disease or illness. The three men then took it in turns to hammer out ideas about Kerouac and On the Road and reassessed ideas of searching for kicks and trips, instead suggesting that perhaps Kerouac and Cassady sought father figures, stability, experience, adulthood and responsibility. McClure kept cracking subtle jokes and Gifford kept name-dropping Hollywood and literary figures with whom he was friends and acquaintances, and Leland kept quoting himself and heaping praise upon his elders. Then Suzanne took her time to stutter her way through a passage, or rather, a series of oddly selected passages, from Edie Parker’s new book about her life with Jack. She kept hitting obvious references and then crowbarring laughter from sections of the audience by shrugging or winking or emphasising things like the notoriety of Burroughs killing Vollmer or Edie’s sexual attraction to Jack. And then she went on about stepping into the shoes of the great women who had been whitewashed over by history and literary critics, even though she was just a lucky random from City Lights picked to read ill-chosen and non-representative passages from what appeared to be a distinctively mediocre text. Gifford sat a grimaced and shook his head, and McClure politely stared into space. All the while, some student-jock type asshole kept whooping in the background, possibly emulating Kerouac himself, who’d get over-enthused at literary gatherings and “yes yes yes” along in the background.

Then came question time. The whooping asshole from the back, who turned out to be black, started jive-talking some typically ineloquently, barely comprehensive, sub-par English version of a half-question, getting at “Did Kerouac kill himself because of the Vietnam war?” to which Gifford practically spat on the table and coldly stated, “No! Next question!” and it looked as though he was ready to leave the whole damn place. A bunch of other inarticulate, border on idiotic, questions were asked, that McClure did his best to address. He basically just told stories about his experiences with Kerouac, weaving these magic old man tales of youth, using his beautiful and quiet old voice to spin a tale like a pro. The audience would shout out corrections regarding dates and times, to which Gifford sneered and McClure laughed, and told about how Kerouac would listen to the sea and write its voice, and then read its voice, for he had the most beautiful sounding voice imaginable and an unparalleled understanding of expression. Gifford name-dropped Francis Ford Copolla, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, and thoroughly drew a map of Beat studies with himself at the centre. Fuck it, I thought, that may not be true, and it may be downright egotistical, but the guy was an intelligent man and had certainly made great contributions to the world of Beatdom.

After getting my copy of Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography signed by Gifford, and thanking him for doing an interview for Beatdom, to which Gifford suddenly smiled and stood up and shook my hand vigorously and said, “I remember that!” I left and went back out onto the streets of San Francisco, the time by then approaching ten. I walked out on to the street, smiling from ear to ear, having spoken briefly to each of the four speakers, even if only to say “Thanks for speaking… And oh, by the way, if you want to check out a magazine called Beatdom…” and then leaving. On my way out of the building I slyly grabbed one of the promotional posters as a souvenir. I had done what I’d come to do and I was happy. Saturday had been a hellish rough day, but it was now almost over. Time for bed, and then maybe I’d get a bus home on Sunday instead, or just kill the day away.

I braved the angry streets home to the hostel, standing out terrifyingly as the book-carrying white guy in the waistcoat, wading through the ghetto scum and bracing the shouts and screams.

Sunday morning I woke up and watched the Man Utd v Chelsea game on TV with another Scottish guy and a fat Brazilian dude. I didn’t really want to go out. My feet hurt from walking the city north to south and east to west, all alone and carrying my life on my back. I wanted to get a bus out of the city immediately. I wanted to be back on the farm, with people I knew.

But I had a job to do. I had to tour the Beat-hell out of San Fran before I could leave. I’d done a few things, and I knew I’d never do it all on foot with no money, but I could still see a little more…

I walked out and along Geary, onto Market and up Montgomery. First thing’s first, I thought: before the Beat Museum I would seek out a less easy to find piece of Beat history. I didn’t even know where to start in seeking Russell Street, where Kerouac and Cassady lived, and where On the Road was written. But I could see Montgomery on a map, and knew that I would be able to walk the length of it, which went on up to North Beach anyway, where the Beat Museum was located, and find number 1010, the apartment in which Ginsberg wrote part of Howl. So I walked all the way up, passing the Church of Scientology building, and damn near laughing my head off at a sign inviting randoms to walk inside and take the tour, and getting personality tests while doing so… And I continued up ‘til I crossed Broadway and found the inconspicuous property. There was nothing much to see – no plaque, nothing. So I took a photo of the door and walked back around the corner, onto Broadway, and along to the Beat Museum.

The Beat Museum is in the heart of the adult industry sector, opposite and beside sex shops, porno theatres and other such places that were probably there back when Kerouac and co. walked the streets. The front is a shop, and the museum upstairs, and it’s easy to see the place in spite of the trees outside, for there is a great black and red advertisement on the outside wall, with that famous photo of Kerouac and Cassady, arms around one another. I went inside and looked around the shop, which doubled as a kind of art gallery for paintings and photos of Beat and counterculture figures. Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead seemed to take prominence, but from the conversations I overheard between staff and proprietors, it sounded as though the walls frequently changed their décor. There were hundreds of books and posters and movies that opened my eyes to the world of Beat studies of which I knew I should have been aware. Things existed and were sold openly that I had never heard of in spite of my studies into every facet of Beat culture. I looked around for a long time, waiting for the staff to stop discussing the positioning of a Bob Dylan print, and then approached the counter when the youngest guy left the two older ones and returned to his station.

“Hey, how’re you doing? Can I get a ticket for the museum, please?” I asked.

“Yeah, are you a student?”

“Not anymore, unfortunately. Just graduated.”

“Oh yeah? From where?”

“Dundee, Scotland. I’m over here doing the Beat tour for a magazine I own and edit: Beatdom.”

“Cool, cool. You know Russell Brand? He was in here the other night, doing some recording for this documentary about On the Road.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard he’s touring San Francisco. One step ahead of me, by the sound of it.”

“We went over the road for a drink after he did his recording.”



“Hey, if you want, we’ve got a bunch of DVD documentaries and stuff, and a TV through the back. I’ll put something on for you, if you want?”

“Yeah, cool. Now or after?”



“No problem, let’s go.”

The guy led me through to a room in the back, next to the stairway leading up to the museum. The room was small and smacked of disused boiler-room, but had a few comfortable-looking chairs and a widescreen TV with DVD player.

“How about The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg?” he asked.

“Sounds great,” I replied. And it was. I sat and watched the film for ninety minutes until it ended, at which point I walked upstairs to check out the museum proper.

The stairs took me up and past the usual posters of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, plus a sign taken from Kerouac Alley, over the road. There was also a sign saying that the use of photography was allowed, which surprised and delighted me, as I was usually too shy to take photos indoors, in case someone told me I wasn’t meant to and I’d get all embarrassed. I walked through to the large room, which was the museum. It was basically just one room about the size of my parents’ living room, which bookcases, displays and a few partitions, which seemed to hide more displays under the guise of being separate rooms. To my left as I entered was a bookcase, protected by glass, of numerous Beat books, mostly first editions. To my right was a display case full of bits and pieces from and about Kerouac’s life – cheques made out to liquor stores, licence plates reading “KEROUAC”, guides to Lowell, newspaper cuttings announcing his death, a typewriter like the one he used… The walls were covered in blown up photos of him and Cassady, him and his parents, him and Carolyn. Around the corner there was a Bukowski section, comprising of photos and poems on the wall, and prints of the newspaper “Fuck Hate”. Around from that there was the Dharma Bums display, made up of Kerouac and Snyder stuff, photos of mountains, and a golden Buddha. In the corner was one of the more impressive exhibits – Allen Ginsberg’s organ. It was the one he used to write the awful album he made as a tribute to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. There was also a section devoted to the women of the Beat Generation, whom the men largely considered their equals, but to whom history has not been so kind. There was a little alcove next to that that seemed to house ‘the rest’ section, comprising of Kaufman, Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure and all the great poets who were missing from the Kerouac dominated landscape of the Beat Museum’s primary displays. In a raised section of the room next to this was what appeared mostly to be the Ginsberg area: with a telling of the Six Gallery reading, the history of the publication of Howl! and photos of him, Orlovsky and Corso butt naked.

I left the Beat Museum and went for dinner in some coffee shop of little note. I was done with Frisco now and ready to leave. There was a bus out at six the next morning, and so I went back to the hostel and crashed ‘til then, not knowing that the next day would see me struggle with Bay Area transport systems for over seven hours before getting back into San Luis Obispo.